Guest Editor

Biosafety Regulations and International Trade in Africa

Emmanuel Ohene Afoakwa
Centre for Food Quality, University of Strathclyde
Glasgow, UK

Biosafety refers to a set of measures aimed at regulating and ensuring the safe use of genetic engineering and transnational movements of genetically modified organisms. It falls within the scope of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol under the Convention of Biological Diversity that is intended to lay the foundation for a global system for assessing and managing the impact of genetic modified organisms on biodiversity. Most African governments believe that genetic engineering biotechnology is inherently safe, and only its misuse needs to be prevented. This is important as some products of modern biotechnology raise certain environmental safety issues.

Genetically engineered crops (also known as transgenic crops) are no longer an idea of the future, but have well and truly arrived. Crops such as maize, soybean, rapeseed and cotton are being approved for commercial use in an increasing number of countries. From 1996 to 2006, there was more than a 48-fold increase in the area grown with transgenic crops worldwide, reaching 82.0 million hectares. In 2005, there were 14 countries that grew 50,000 hectares or more: the US grew 59% of the world total, followed by Argentina (20%), Canada (6%), Brazil (6%), China (5%), Paraguay (2%), India (1%), and South Africa (1%). In addition, Uruguay, Australia, Romania, Mexico, Spain and the Philippines each had smaller scale cultivation of less than 1% of the total. Most of this cultivation was devoted to soybean (60%), maize (23%), cotton (11%), and rapeseed (6%). So far, most commercialization has focused on these crops, and genetic engineering has involved two traits: insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. The trend for an increase in the transgenic crop area seems set to continue, given the large range of genetically engineered crops in research and development, many of which would eventually get connected to the trade systems in Africa.

Harmonising biosafety regulations in Africa

In Africa, one of the primary issues on biosafety has been to promote harmonisation among member countries of notifications and registrations of biotechnology products. Such harmonisation aims to ensure that the information used in risk/safety assessments, as well as the methods used to collect them are as similar as possible. This can lead to countries recognizing or even accepting information from one another’s safety assessments, which would generate significant benefits such as:

  1. increased mutual understanding among member countries of each other’s risk assessments;

  2. avoidance of duplication efforts;

  3. savings on scarce resources; and

  4. increased efficiency of the risk/safety assessment process.

This in turn would improve safety, while reducing unnecessary barriers to trade. For harmonisation to be possible among member countries, it is important that they have similar approaches to risk/safety assessment. Work done on risk assessment by researchers demonstrated that such assessment should be based on the characteristics of the organism, the introduced trait, the environment into which the organism is introduced, the interaction between these, and the intended application. It is important for African governments to ensure that good quality safety information is publicly available and, where possible, to adopt international approaches to risk and safety assessment that ensure the efficiency of the risk assessment process. The similarity of approach needs to be reinforced by the fact that most genetically engineered organisms are developed from organisms such as crop plants whose biology is well understood. This would allow risk assessors to draw on previous knowledge and experience with the introduction of plants and micro-organisms into the environment. The process needs to take account of a wide range of attributes including, for example, knowledge and experience with the plant, including its flowering/reproductive characteristics, ecological requirements, and past breeding experiences.

Several African countries have initiated strong Biosafety Protocols and the African Union's Model Law of 1999 was the first to set out a framework for national biosafety laws. But Africa has since become a target of a GM lobby desperate to open new markets and enhance its public relations. The solidarity and good intentions among African governments are under siege and need to be well controlled. While several year ago there was a common understanding across Africa’s institutions and governments that GM is a tricky technology that one has to be careful with, today, some governments, such as those of Kenya, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, and Uganda are vying to make their countries the African showcases for the GM industry. This change is largely the result of relentless efforts by the GM industry and aid agencies worldwide. Backed up with unlimited amounts of money and generous support to whatever GM research projects national scientists might fancy, these efforts seem to be paying off. A number of African governments view biosafety legislation as a means to build up local GM research capacity for their scientists. Burkina Faso has been very eager to join up with Monsanto in bringing Bt cotton into the country’s farming and trading system. Tanzania and Kenya, which are key targets of international GM programmes, are also developing their biosafety policies in the interests of "research" projects and systematic openings for international trade. All of these countries are acting in accordance with the Biosafety Protocol and most have been a part of the Protocol's capacity-building process. There are African countries where the biosafety legislation processes have not yet been developed. Zambia has courageously withstood the massive outside pressure on it to accept GM food aid. Mali's national biosafety framework and draft biosafety bill are the complete opposite of Burkina Faso's - it's next-door neighbour. The Malian Bill is one of the few in Africa inspired directly by the AU Model Law and it is tough on labelling, liability and public participation. Indeed, within the West African sub-region, as in other sub-regions of Africa, the picture of national biosafety regimes is quite mixed: Togo's biosafety framework leans towards precaution and pays particular attention to socioeconomic risks; Ghana's framework is decidedly pro-GM; Benin has a 5-year moratorium on GM crops. But what matters is not the law but the political will. Benin's government has done nothing to enforce the moratorium, and is even covertly working with USAID towards the introduction of Bt cotton. Mali has a strong framework on paper, but the country just joined the rest of the ECOWAS countries in announcing its support for GM agriculture and in committing to establish a harmonised, regional regulatory system for GMOs within 5 years. In this, West Africa is not alone. Harmonisation programmes designed to create regional one-stop markets for the GM industry are underway throughout Africa. In South Africa, one of the only African countries with a biosafety law in place, the laws do contain decent provisions concerning access to information and the right to appeal, but government and industry has colluded to effectively block people's efforts to exercise these rights.

In view of these, Africa needs to harmonise its biosafety policies in order to preserve free trade within the continent. A number of initiatives have already been launched, for example the African Union is developing an African Strategy on Biosafety. Similarly, agricultural ministers within the continent's largest trading bloc, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), have endorsed a Regional Approach to Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa. But that is not enough as there is need for continentally developed harmonised policies, by provision of a broad-based platform where policymakers, scientists, the private sector and society can interact and consult each other, to tackle the issues that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) raise for trade and access to emergency food aid. Thus, Africa needs harmonised biosafety policies that respect sovereignty and pool resources. These would allow countries with weak or underdeveloped capacity access to cutting-edge research and development facilities, boosting the exchange of scientific and technical information on GMOs to safeguard lives and as well enhance the well developed intra and inter-continental trade in Africa.

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